Everyone is worried about fake news, conspiracy theories, unreason and deep political divisions. And rightly so-this is no longer the balmy climate of the late nineteen nineties! So why the growth in extremism, and the stubborn refusal to accept facts?Now a team at Cambridge University think they have the answer. They studied 330 participants aged from 22 to 63 on a variety of neuropsychological tasks. According to the excellent report by Natalie Grover of the Guardian, they found:
people with extremist attitudes tended to think about the world in black and white terms, and struggled with complex tasks that required intricate mental steps, said lead author Dr Leor Zmigrod at Cambridge’s department of psychology.
“Individuals or brains that struggle to process and plan complex action sequences may be more drawn to extreme ideologies, or authoritarian ideologies that simplify the world,” she said.
It’s a fascinating idea, and seems to hold a key to a major problem. But beware easy answers, like “nasty people are stupid”. For one thing, it’s dangerous to underestimate the enemy. But there’s another. We’ve seen a lot of clever, hitherto successful people make some dreadful errors. Often because they grab hold of an obsession and won’t let it go. Often such people are under extreme emotional and psychological stress -factors first identified by Norman Dixon in his ground breaking work The Psychology of Miliary Incompetence. Think Napoleon and Russia-but there are many many other examples. Maybe you’ve seen people do it in your organisation. And can we flip this-could it be that people who are under great stress, maybe due to poverty, thereby turn to extremist beliefs? More research needed, surely.
On the Psychology Of Military Incompetence Norman F Dixon Pimlico 1994
#neuropsychology #cognitivedissonance #stress #blackandwhitethinking #extremism